Attendance Awareness

“Actually, nothing is okay.” It was spring of 2021, I was a seventh-grade teacher conducting 1-on-1s with my students over Zoom because we had been sent home for a few weeks due to COVID-19. I asked each student how they are doing, if there is anything they needed, and talked to them about ways to keep their spirits up. I tried everything I could to keep kids engaged and feeling connected. Because of one student, let’s call her Sofia (not her real name), I’ll always remember that day. I had had an hour of heart-breaking meetings. I talked to kids whose parents were sick -- kids whose families had lost their jobs or homes. It was rough and I was tired.  So when I met with Sofia, a sweet girl and ESL student who worked hard and wanted so much to be good at school despite a language barrier, I asked her how things were going. She said, “I’m okay.” I pushed on that, and she assured me that everything was going well for her, “great” even. I was so happy. It was my first good conversation, but I did have one more question. “Where have you been?”

I hadn’t seen Sofia in class in a few weeks, even when we were in-person she was chronically absent, and that’s when she said to me, “Well… actually… nothing is okay.” She started to cry and confided in me everything that was happening in her life, all the reasons she hadn’t been to school. The details of her story are too much to relay here, but it hit me deep, like getting punched in the gut. It made me reflect on all the students I had talked to that day and I thought to myself, “it can’t get worse than this.” In many ways, I was right, but the 2021/2022 school year presented new challenges. Not least among these challenges was the very thing that made Sofia break down: attendance. In the 21/22 school year, of my 115 seventh graders, at least twenty were absent each day. This was a dramatic increase over any previous year, and it reflected local and national trends.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more of the school year. This comes out to approximately 18 days away from school. Regardless of whether the absences are excused or unexcused, being chronically absent takes a significant toll on students’ achievement. By the end of elementary school, students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are, on average, three grade levels behind their peers in reading. In sixth grade, attendance is a better indicator that a student will drop out than academic performance. I talked to teachers from around Story County this past week about attendance, to make sure it wasn’t just me. One had this to say, “for sure it was sporadic for some and abysmal for others.” Another told me that there were several students, “who you rarely see and surprise you when they are there.”  In fact, it’s not just a problem here. Across the country, chronic absentee rates have more than doubled. 16 million students were chronically absent last school year, but like was the case with Sofia, absenteeism is not the singular failing of a student or parents or schools. It is a multifaceted problem that needs to be addressed by the whole community.

Barriers to attendance can include chronic health issues, transportation, financial instability, and much more. United Way of Story County strives to tackle these issues with our dedicated team. We are working to build closer connections between school districts, city governments, local businesses, and families to bring awareness to attendance. The cities of Ames, Collins, Huxley, and Roland as well as the Board of Supervisors have all proclaimed September as Attendance Awareness Month.  Our education coalition, Story County Reads, has assembled an Attendance Toolkit using resources from Attendance Works which has been distributed throughout our schools and includes relatable resources for families. If you would like to join us, reach out to our Education Initiatives Coordinator at, donate to United Way, or volunteer in Story County by going to Visit to learn more about what you can do to help.